Remember the 1990s? Back in those days, the U.S. was recognized as the world's sole superpower. Our economy was booming, we ended the decade with a budget surplus, and there was a widespread sense around the world that the United States really had its act together. True, we had some pretty bitter partisan politics, misguided polices like "dual containment" were helping pave the way for 9/11, and corrupt financiers were busy sowing the seeds for the 2007 meltdown, but most of the world had the impression -- rightly or wrongly -- that the United States knew what it was doing. People like Tom Friedman extolled America's virtues in books like The Lexus and the Olive Tree, arguing that the rest of the world would have to embrace "DOS.Capitalism 6.0" (in other words, our system), or fall by the wayside. Overall, a powerful aura of competence enhanced U.S. influence and magnified our "hard power."
Fast forward to right now. We are on the brink of a major self-inflicted wound, driven solely by the deep dysfunction that now seems baked into our political system. Why should Pakistanis, Afghanis, Europeans, Chinese, Thais, Mexicans, Venezuelans, or anybody else take our advice on how to govern, when they watch the sorry set of ignorant clowns who are holding the rest of us hostage? If the worst case happens and the United States ends up defaulting, the economic costs will be significant enough. But it is also likely to do considerable damage to America's reputation for being a reasonably well-governed society, and it will accelerate the tendency for people around the world to look elsewhere for guidance. And while all this time and attention has been wasted on the debt ceiling, other problems are festering and will be there to bite us later.
I wonder if all those "patriots" in the Tea Party and the GOP ever thought about that. And if they did, would they even care?
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.